Image: Mia and Suzan present their poster at the conference. Media provided by Dana Bevilacqua
On April 28, Grace students Mia R. ‘23 and Suzan E. ‘23 attended the Social and Affective Neuroscience Conference in Santa Barbara, California. While taking the neuroscience class taught by Dana Bevilacqua, Grace teacher and research coordinator at NYU’s Center for Language, Music and Emotion, the team was instructed to present a poster on their research about a topic they have been analyzing since the start of the year: musical memory.
Accompanied by Ms. Bevilacqua, their faculty advisor, Mia and Suzan were the only high school group at the conference. The study they presented addressed a unique gap in the literature, as this type of work has only been explored with adult test subjects, not adolescents.
Mia explained that the research topic was built on work done on adults.
“It has already been established in adults that music can act as an abstract reward to improve memory,” Mia said. “They found in this article by Laura Ferreri that adults better remember music that they prefer. So we were trying to mimic this in adolescents and see what the results would be for teenagers across developmental stages, which has never been done before.”
The study yielded fascinating results. Instead of mimicking adult results, teenagers performed differently on the musical memory test.
“Teenagers are better at remembering the songs they found sad or that they feel more energized from,” Mia added. “Adults were indifferent to emotion, and they better remembered songs that they liked more. For teenagers, it didn’t matter whether or not they liked the song for their memory.”
Mia explained that this interesting disparity was potentially due to teenagers being in a more emotional stage than full-grown adults. The team was thrilled with the study’s results and are excited to take their findings to the next step by sending their data to an NYU student who will analyze it.
Mia and Suzan’s experiment was conducted as part of the Experimental Research Methods elective class offered at Grace. Taught by Ms. Bevilacqua, the class began in 2021 with Grace Alumni Camryn D. ‘21 and Talli W. ‘21 and is a continuation of the Brain Power neuroscience elective.
“They both had very different projects and they needed a faculty advisor to work with them on how to collect the data and analyze it,” Ms. Bevilacqua said. “Because I had taught both of them in the Brain Power class, which is a really heavy research methods class, the point of the class was meant to be an extension.”
Evidently, the class expanded into much more for the students, as their curiosity continued to grow.
“Mia and Suzan were very curious about learning more about the experimental process,” Ms. Belivacqua continued. “They’re really addressing a gap in the literature because we don’t really have access to this kind of population in normal research. If I have a project that we’re working on in the lab, I’m happy to offer it up as something that people can help on, but it requires a lot of extra time and energy because we don’t work on a school schedule.”
Ms. Bevilacqua explained that last year’s students –Sahil S. ‘22 and Jackson G. ‘22– also worked on a project that extended to outside-of-school lab research. “It required a lot of troubleshooting, a lot of frustration, and a lot of patience and time.”
As the advisor for Mia and Suzan’s study, Ms. Bevilacqua was able to offer a real-world perspective to the world of neuroscience and lab work: “Because I work in a lab in real life, I know where things are now and what it takes to be successful.”
In explaining how she advises students, she said: “I try to break a big project into smaller chunks and teach strategies or give strategies that I think would help people get to the next phase and set them up best for the rest of them. In research, it’s a really recurrent cycle. You start here, you go forward, but then you often have to go back and revisit if you’re asking the right research question.”
Ms. Bevilacqua’s ability to offer a professional perspective is vital for the students in her class who want to work in STEM careers when they’re older. She wants to remind her students that “you’re not supposed to be the expert in all things. It took me a while to come back to science. At the end of my 20s, I wanted to get back into psychology and research. At the time, I was living in Australia, and I just showed up at a bunch of labs at the university in Melbourne, and just asked if they would take me as a volunteer.”
While Ms. Bevilacqua is now an experienced researcher, Mia and Suzan have just begun testing the waters.
“I have been interested in the STEM field for as long as I can remember, and in the past have been doubted by my peers and teachers in my STEM-oriented classes as a woman of color,” Suzan said. “It has been an amazing opportunity to pursue my interest in neuroscience in Ms. B’s Experimental Research Methods class.”
Mia echoed this sentiment, voicing how the SANS conference and the Experimental Research Methods class were unique opportunities for which she was grateful. She also emphasized how Ms. Bevilacqua’s mentorship was an integral part of the study’s success.
“She brought us to the conference,” Mia said. “She scheduled everything for us. We owe her everything.”
Mia and Suzan’s exciting opportunity to attend the SANS conference and participate in the neuroscience electives at Grace have been testaments to their perseverance and strength as Grace students and women in STEM.
Ms. Bevilacqua’s mentorship and advice helped them along the way to their success, and the trio is proud of the innovative work they have done this school year.
Regarding the next steps for the project, Mia explained that the team will “write the manuscript over the summer and submit for peer review and publication, which is really exciting.”
Playing to their strengths under Ms. Bevilacqua’s guidance, Mia and Suzan are sure to pioneer change as women in STEM for years to come.
Ella Anderson ‘23, the author, is a staff writer for The Gazette.